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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 18, 2009
Shooting the messenger in Thailand
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Assault rifle-toting assassins on Friday morning opened fire on and injured media mogul and People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group leader Sondhi Limthongkul, representing a dangerous turn in Thailand's spiraling political conflict and raising the prospect of volatile pro- versus anti-government street confrontations in the days ahead.

Media reports indicated two gunmen in a pick-up truck unloaded nearly 100 assault rifle rounds into Sondhi's vehicle after shooting out its tires near his Manager Media Group's Bangkok offices. According to news reports, Sondhi underwent emergency surgery to remove a bullet from his skull and was in stable condition. His

 

driver was also severely injured in the heavy-arms assault.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, though initial speculation pointed to wayward elements of the United Front For Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) anti-government protest group. Earlier this week, troops pushed the UDD from its rally site surrounding Government House after red-shirted protesters blocked roadways, burned pubic transport buses and threatened to ignite trucks loaded with cooking gas canisters.

Three of the UDD's top leaders are now in police custody under a government-imposed state of emergency and several others are on the run from arrest warrants. That includes one for exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who in recent video call-ins urged his UDD supporters to launch a "people's revolution" against the government and a broad aristocracy.

Opposition politicians affiliated with the Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai party vowed after the military's crackdown to sustain and intensify their struggle from underground. Peua Thai member of parliament Worawut Ua-apinyakul was quoted in the local press on Thursday saying that the UDD would unleash a "covert struggle" that would exact violence worse than that seen in the country's Muslim insurgency-hit southernmost provinces, where over 2,000 have died since 2004.

A second-line UDD leader recently told this correspondent that the protest group's next round of anti-government protests would be "better-armed". Asia Times Online broke the news on Tuesday that UDD operatives had for the past two years funneled arms through Cambodia to Thaksin-aligned supporters in the country's northeastern provinces, where his grassroots support runs strongest. (See A battle won in Thailand's 'war').

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayakorn said in an interview on Thursday the Asia Times Online report was one of several reasons Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had not yet lifted the emergency decree he declared last Sunday. The same spokesman was quoted in local media on Friday as saying the armed attack on Sondhi could further prolong lifting of the decree.

Sondhi's anti-government PAD protests paved the way for the military ouster of Thaksin's government in September 2006 and a second incarnation of that yellow-shirted movement was instrumental last year in driving two Thaksin-aligned administrations from power. Both Samak Sundaravej's and Somchai Wongsawat's governments were toppled by what their supporters felt were politically motivated court decisions.

Sondhi's initial protest stage claims in October 2005 that Thaksin had demonstrated disloyalty to the Thai throne struck a cord with a wide section of the Bangkok-based middle class. Thaksin has consistently denied the accusations, but the military coupmakers who toppled his government enlisted similar anti-royal accusations, along with claims of rampant corruption and anti-democratic tendencies, as cause for their putsch.

Sondhi has claimed throughout that his yellow-cloaked movement aims first and foremost to protect the monarchy from usurping politicians. He has, under the banner of "New Politics", also advocated political change that would entail a move towards fewer elected and more appointed Lower House parliamentarians.

Last year, many perceived that Sondhi's second PAD movement had received tacit royal blessing when Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of a PAD supporter who was killed last October 7 during a melee with police in front of parliament. His protest group laid siege to Government House last year for over three months, paralyzing the workings of two Thaksin-affiliated governments, and in a tumultuous crescendo in late November seized Bangkok's international and domestic airports.

Whether the assassination attempt against Sondhi heralds the violent beginning of a pro-Thaksin hit-and-run insurgency aimed against the government and the UDD's declared "aristocratic" and "establishment" enemies is still unclear. The armed attack on Sondhi, some analysts note, comes on the heels of a foiled arson attack against the main offices of the Bangkok Bank and Charoen Pokphand Group, two of the country's largest and most influential corporations.

Others contend that the outspoken Sondhi has earned enemies from both sides of the political divide through his often stinging television critiques. They point to recent ASTV broadcasts that criticized both the police and military for not maintaining security, and Abhisit's government for allowing UDD protesters to criticize privy councilors during recent rallies. At the same time, his television station's commentators, including former PAD spokesperson Anchalee Paireerak, have criticized minor royals during broadcasts.

Sondhi and the PAD were open targets for the UDD, whose speakers consistently claimed on stage that his protest movement had worked in cahoots with the military to bring Abhisit to power. UDD supporters plastered stickers portraying Sondhi and Abhisit on their protest site's walkways, a potent insult in Thai culture which emphasizes the importance of keeping the head above the foot. UDD-affiliated vendors sold portraits of his head affixed to the body of a dog, another grave insult in Thai terms.

One UDD co-leader, Jakrapob Penkair, had in recent weeks filed a defamation suit against Sondhi's ASTV satellite television for critical comments aired about him during one of the PAD's protests. The PAD had frequently criticized Jakrapob, a former Thaksin government spokesman, after he was forced to resign his ministerial post in Samak's government in early 2008 after a police official filed lese majeste charges against him.

One ASTV director recalled the threats made last year by pro-Thaksin military official Major General Kattiya Sawadipol, who threatened to use violence against the PAD unless it abandoned its protest site at Government House. He was quoted by The Nation newspaper threatening a "massacre" of PAD supporters, saying: "I would like to say that anyone wanting to join the rally should reserve a temple for his or her own funeral. Being united, you will be slain in a group."

UDD supporters complain about a perceived legal double standard, where UDD leaders have been held without bail in police custody for their protest activities, while PAD leaders, including Sondhi, have been allowed to post bail after hearing charges related to the PAD's seizure of Bangkok's airports.

The fear now is that Friday's assassination attempt could indicate that the UDD and Thaksin's supporters aim to bypass the courts and mete out justice as they see fit on Thailand's increasingly mean streets.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at swcrispin@atimes.com.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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